How is College Different from High School?

Arguably one of the most successful innovations in education has been the American model of postgraduate education.  This occurs within colleges and universities, so it is worth contemplating how complaints about undergraduate education in colleges might impact the higher levels of college education.  Part of this is motivated by Third Way’s advocacy for, in essence, pushing solutions attempted for K-12 onto colleges. Part of it is from the tension between those advocating that college education itself is a great good worth lots of money and those arguing that the financial burden is far too great for an education producing no gains in life [see the comments on the first column to see this point of view from multiple angles].

So first, how is college different from high school? Long ago, college students were fundamentally different in that they could afford to defer beginning a career in order to obtain a greater education.  They were in college by their own choice; their commitment to being in class meant that they could reach a professor halfway, while a high school teacher might have to find a way to drag uninterested students into the educational mainstream. This distinction, if it is still present at all, has greatly faded.  More and more students and their families believe, arguably with good reason, that a college education is increasingly a necessary prerequisite for a successful career.  But this has shifted the expectations and the kinds of financial stress that students now endure.  Having students in class who really have no interest in that material is getting more and more common. So the distinction from the student side of the podium is getting to be pretty small.

How about the instructor side? This is where there is a profound difference, and this is part of what programs like Third Way’s seek to reduce or eliminate. K-12 instructors are not the people generating the knowledge they teach.  The skills they bring are in communication and motivation, in getting students engaged, in getting ideas through to them.  These are difficult skills to master and, arguably, acquiring them remains a distressingly hit-or-miss kind of thing.  Good K-12 teachers are very valuable elements of the educational system.

So what is the deal with college faculty?

College faculty, especially research university faculty, are scholars in the sense of trying to generate new knowledge.  When these people are lecturing a classroom, they not only are conveying the knowledge acquired by others in the past, they convey it with the understanding of how such knowledge was originally earned and, ideally, add some new knowledge that they themselves have been able to acquire. Ideally exposure to such experience, to the idea that knowledge is not a fixed block of work but an evolving body of information and ideas, promotes a more mature and thoughtful analysis of the world around us. This can be a fundamentally different outlook than is present in K-12. This is why the tradition in hiring new faculty revolves around their academic accomplishments.

Some of these folks are not very good teachers; some are brilliant. Now in the past, new faculty were simply tossed into a lecture hall and told to teach with little or no additional guidance (maybe you’d get the textbook used by the last professor to teach the class and maybe their syllabus or, if you were lucky, their class notes).  This practice is rightfully scorned, and the good news is that progress is being made in providing new faculty with some training and guidance and oversight so that their teaching can start off on the right foot.  Materials and guidance (and training of a sort) is available to existing faculty to improve their teaching if they so desire. It might surprise some to learn that teaching quality is a concern on promotion within universities–it is not the be-all and end-all, but being a truly bad instructor carries a strong possibility of not gaining tenure.

So here’s where GG gets nervous about some of the suggested solutions to why college education is in trouble. If you want to really say that the single purpose of college faculty is teaching college undergraduates in the classroom, you expand the job market for skilled teachers while abandoning the market for scholarly work. Make no mistake, being a good high school teacher is a full-time job (being a bad one is still a pretty serious time commitment); making college professors have to match the level of work in, say, going to regular workshops, teaching more sections with smaller class sizes, etc., means there is less time for that other stuff. College becomes high school plus.

Why is the more successful part of American education looking to the less successful part for insight on improvement?

Perhaps it is time to rejigger eduction as a whole.  Are two-year degrees enough to assure students of a better career? Should we drop BS and BA education from colleges and move it to something new, say, post-high school academies, or just make a community college degree the standard for entrance to universities, who would themselves drop the BA and BS degrees? This would of course cause wholesale distress in the academic world as many (most?) college professors would either accept being put in a role more akin to the high school teacher or have to struggle to earn one of the far-fewer spots at remaining university positions.  The continued metamorphosis of 4-year colleges dedicated to undergraduate education into research institutions would be reversed.

Assuming that colleges should be scored on the success of their graduates, on the financial burden of their graduates, risks making the broader role of college narrow into vocational training.  Engineering colleges would flourish as their graduates consistently make more money; traditional liberal arts schools would suffer, presumably, and fine arts schools might go extinct. Do we want the marketplace to be the sole judge of the breadth of education in America?

Be cautious what you wish for.  You just might get it.

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